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June 2013

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Issues Heavy Fines for Late-Filed Children’s Television Programming Reports
  • Motel with Multichannel Video Programming Distribution System Is Cited for Excessive Cable Signal Leakage

FCC Fines Multiple Licensees for Failure to Timely File Children’s Television Programming Reports

As broadcasters have learned, the FCC takes licensees’ public inspection file and reporting obligations very seriously. This month, the FCC issued multiple Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against licensees for failing to file Children’s Television Programming Reports on Form 398 in a timely manner. On June 18 and 21, the FCC issued a total of seven decisions proposing to fine stations between $3,000 and $18,000 for not filing their Form 398s on time.

Under the FCC’s rules, commercial television stations must report their children’s educational and informational broadcast programming efforts each quarter by electronically filing FCC Form 398, the Children’s Television Programming Report. Historically, the FCC has fined stations for failing to file their reports, and there would be nothing new about the FCC issuing an NAL for “failure to file”.

In these seven cases, however, the stations were not fined for a failure to file their reports, but for failing to file their reports on time. In the decisions, the FCC issued the following fines:

  • For a station that missed the filing deadline twenty-three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $18,000.
  • For a licensee that missed the filing deadline eleven times on one station and thirteen times on another, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $15,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline fourteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline ten times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $9,000 (eight reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline three times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000 (three reports were filed more than 30 days late).
  • For a station that missed the deadline sixteen times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $6,000.
  • For a station that missed the filing deadline eleven times, the FCC issued an NAL in the amount of $3,000.

The cases were all relatively similar. As an example, in the $15,000 NAL, the licensee filed license renewal applications for its two Class A TV stations. At the time of the applications, the licensee did not disclose that it had filed some of its Children’s Television Programming Reports late, and in fact, certified in its renewal applications that it had timely filed all relevant programming reports with the FCC. However, the Commission subsequently reviewed its records and found that the licensee failed to file programming reports on time for 11 quarters for one station and 13 quarters for another.

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We now know what the per-subscriber fee for cable systems lacking retransmission agreements with local broadcast stations is, and it isn’t “free”.

Section 76.64 of the FCC’s Rules requires cable systems to have a written retransmission agreement in place before retransmitting the signal of a station that elected retransmission consent status. Because the law is clear on this point (for a differing view, see Aereo), there have been few cases where the FCC has had to address complaints of illegal retransmission.

In the first of these cases, the FCC found the cable system violated its obligation to negotiate in good faith with the broadcaster and ordered retransmission to cease until an agreement was in place. Two later cases for a pair of 34-day violations against one cable system operator resulted in base fine calculations of $255,000 each, but the FCC reduced the fines to $15,000 each based upon the cable system operator’s inability to pay.

Today, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $2.25 million for TV Max, Inc. and related parties for retransmitting six local TV stations to 245 multiple dwelling unit buildings in Houston without a retransmission agreement. Despite having previously had retransmission agreements with all of the stations, the cable system operator claimed it now qualified for an exemption from the retransmission agreement requirement because it had installed a master antenna on each of the buildings, allowing residents to obtain the broadcast signals for free over-the-air. Each of the six stations filed a complaint with the FCC, noting that the respective retransmission agreements with the cable system operator had expired or been terminated for non-payment, but that retransmission was continuing.

On December 20, 2012, following an investigation, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued a letter to TV Max stating its “initial finding that TV Max had willfully and repeatedly violated, and continued to violate, the Commission’s retransmission consent rules, and stating that it planned to recommend that the Commission issue a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture for these violations.” The Media Bureau later followed up with a March 28, 2013 letter to all of the parties asking for the status of carriage and whether retransmission agreements were now in place. While the stations all responded that they were still being carried without their consent, TV Max indicated it had not retransmitted the stations over its fiber since June 7, 2012.

That led to today’s Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order. In its decision, the FCC found that some of the cable system operator’s statements to the FCC were “lacking in candor”. Specifically, the FCC concluded that the cable system had continued to retransmit the stations over its fiber and had not installed master antennas on all of its buildings by the time it claimed to have ceased fiber retransmission:

Based upon the evidence before us, and in view of the applicable law and Commission precedent, we conclude that TV Max has willfully and repeatedly violated Section 325 of the Act and Section 76.64 of the Commission’s rules, and persists in its violation of these provisions, by retransmitting the Stations’ signals without the express authority of the originating stations. As discussed below, the violations are based on (1) TV Max’s admitted carriage of the Stations from the time their retransmission consent agreements expired through at least July 25, 2012 without the Stations’ consent and without a master antenna television (MATV) system in place in all the buildings it serves; and (2) TV Max’s ongoing carriage of the Stations without their consent since July 26, 2012 because it was not exclusively using its MATV facilities to retransmit the broadcast signals to its subscribers.

While the precise length of time any particular station was carried without a retransmission agreement varied, the FCC noted in its decision that Section 503 of the Communications Act limits its ability to issue fines for cable violations occurring more than one year ago. As a result, the FCC based its proposed fine on 365 days worth of violations involving six stations. While the decision is a bit fuzzy on the precise math behind the final number (particularly given that the maximum fine is much higher than the fine proposed), a little reverse engineering provides some real-world context for a $2.25 million fine.

The FCC notes that the system has about 10,000 subscribers, that six stations were carried without a retransmission agreement, and that the fine reflected one year’s worth of violations. That works out to a monthly retransmission “fee” of $3.13 per subscriber for each station (apparently the federal government has less negotiating leverage than ESPN). Still, that is more than the cable system operator would have paid under an arms-length negotiated broadcast retransmission agreement. Unfortunately for the affected stations, however, payment of the fine goes to the U.S. Government rather than to the television stations.

On the other hand, retransmitting programs without consent is also a copyright violation, meaning that stations pursuing copyright claims against the cable system operator could add significantly to the operator’s financial pain. Such are the risks of reinterpreting the breadth of the Communications Act’s retransmission consent requirements (see Aereo?).

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Last month, the FCC issued its latest annual Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) as well as a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) containing regulatory fee proposals for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Those who wish to file comments on the FCC’s proposed fees must do so by June 19, 2013, with reply comments due by June 26, 2013. The NPRM proposes to collect just under $340 million in regulatory fees for FY 2013.

The FCC indicates that this year’s Congressional budget sequester reduced FCC salaries and expenditures by $17 million but that the sequester does not impact the collection of regulatory fees. According to the NPRM, this is because the sequester does not change the amount Congress required the FCC to collect in the FY 2012 appropriation (and continued in effect in FY 2013 by virtue of the Further Continuing Appropriations Act in 2013).
The NPRM seeks comments on adoption and implementation of proposals to reallocate the Agency’s regulatory fees based on the matters actually worked on by current FCC full time employees (FTEs) for FY 2013 to more accurately assess the costs of providing regulatory services to various industry sectors and to account for changes in the wireless and wireline industries in recent years. Understanding that a modification of its current fee allocation method based on FTE workload will result in significantly higher fees for some fee categories, the NPRM proposes to potentially cap rate increases at 7.5% for FY 2013.
The FCC’s NPRM also asks for comment on the following:

  1. Combining Interstate Telecommunications Service Providers (ITSPs) and wireless telecommunications services into one regulatory fee category and using revenues as the basis for calculating the resulting regulatory fees;
  2. Using revenues to calculate regulatory fees for other industries that now use subscribers as the basis for regulatory fee calculations, such as the cable industry;
  3. Consolidating UHF and VHF television stations into one regulatory fee category;
  4. Proposing a regulatory fee for Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) equivalent to cable regulatory fees;
  5. Alleviating large fluctuations in the fee rate for Multiyear Wireless Services; and
  6. Determining whether the Commission should modify its methodology for collecting regulatory fees from those in declining industries (e.g., CMRS Messaging).

In the FNPRM, the FCC seeks comment on the how to treat, for regulatory fee purposes, services such as non-U.S.-Licensed Space Stations, Direct Broadcast Satellites and broadband.
The FCC also notes that it is seeking to modernize its electronic filing and payment systems. As a result, beginning on October 1, 2013, the FCC will no longer accept paper and check filings for payment of Annual Regulatory Fees. What that means is that this year’s regulatory fee filing is likely the last time that regulatory fees can be paid without using electronic funds.
We will be publishing a full Advisory on the FY 2013 Regulatory Fees once they are adopted (likely this summer). You may also immediately access the FCC’s FY 2013 proposed fee tables attached to the NPRM, in order to estimate, at least approximately, the size payment the FCC will be expecting from you this fall.